What is Japanese pitch accent?

Pitch accent is the Japanese phenomenon where each mora (see What is the difference between a mora and a syllable?) of a word can have either high or low pitch. In newsgroup discussions, these are represented by a string of letters H or L for high or low.

There are two basic patterns in standard Japanese, the "Tokyo dialect".[1] The first is a flat pattern called heibanshiki (平板式) where a low mora is followed by high ones, LHHHH. For example,

The second one is the rising and falling pattern, kifukushiki (起伏式). This has several types:

Some words with the same kana can be distinguished by different pitch accents. For example, hashi can be either hashi "chopsticks" or hashi, "bridge". Here is a table of words with identical kana yet different accents:

Word Accent on first mora
Accent on second mora
hashi hashi chopsticks hashi (ga) bridge hashi (ga) edge
ima ima now ima (ga) 居間 living room
kaki kaki 牡蠣 oyster kaki (ga) fence kaki (ga) persimmon
sake sake salmon sake (ga) alcohol, sake
nihon nihon 二本 two sticks of nihon 日本 Japan

Phonetically speaking, the sense that a given mora occurs on one pitch and another mora on a different pitch, is by-and-large an illusion. Pitch makes contours over words and phrases, and there are no instantaneous rises or drops.

Phonemically speaking, probably all dialects (even those that don't have word accent at all) can probably be described in terms of two pitches, high and low. "Low", however, has two allophones--depending on where a low occurs, it may be more or less low (compared to a high or a low in another environment). This led linguists to a sandankan (三段観) "three step view/theory" of Tokyo-style accent.

The "LH" stuff that appears in sci.lang.japan so often is both potentially ambiguous and overkill. The best way to mark Tokyo-style accent would be with an accent mark on the vowel that precedes (actually, "begins") a drop in pitch. Accent marks in the newsgroup, however, turn to Japanese characters on many people's screens, so the next best thing is probably to put "|" after the last high vowel. (Note this does not work for Kyoto-style accent, which is, so-to-speak, two dimensional.)


  1. Harusuke Kindaiichi, Meikai Akusento Jiten, page 12.; 1981

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